Month: June 2011

Creating a citizen movement for open government

Creating a citizen movement for open government

Originally posted on Image: CC-BY-SA with attributions to

How do you get techies, govies, and citizens to identify, collaborate, and start creating solutions for your local government? Host a CityCamp.

It’s easier than you think. The first CityCamp Raleigh started as a conversation about citizen engagement, but we realized that we could do more than just talk about it. A dozen people came together over 12 weeks to make CityCamp Raleigh a reality. Over 225 people attended three days of collaboration, sharing, and encouraging openness–focusing on improving access to data and solutions for local government.

Three themes emerged over the weekend, all twists on open government:

Create a citizen movement

The following conversation took place on the first day of CityCamp Raleigh (over Twitter), and it resonated with me because events like CityCamp can influence citizen participation in government. The comments were both critical and encouraging:

@RogerTheGeek (Roger Austin) – Why I am not enthusiastic about #ccral as a geek citizen? The political landscape changes every election. All past work is flushed. Bummer

@adrielhampton (Adriel Hampton) – @RogerTheGeek You have to create a powerful movement that is community owned. That’s how you beat political cycles. #ccRal

Adriel is spot on. He also highlights one of the reasons why CityCamp Raleigh was successful—it was citizen-led. Passionate citizens came together to plan and execute this event. Now that it’s over, it’s transitioning into a movement. And it’s still citizen-led.

We were fortunate to have City Councilor Bonner Gaylord co-chair the planning committee and Jonathan Minter, City of Raleigh IT director, on the planning committee. But we also had citizens with passion about making CityCamp more than a conversation. If this was run by a city department, I don’t think we would have pulled the three-day event off with less than 12 weeks of planning. The red tape would have been impossible to cut through.

Creating a citizen movement doesn’t happen overnight. The potential CityCamp Raleigh has to provide leadership and advocacy in the open source, open data, and technology space is immeasurable. The future opportunities of this citizen-led movement will make a big impact on the direction the city takes with open data and could redefine citizen participation.

Eliminate email for feedback

Kevin Curry posted an observation that highlights my next theme, how to get feedback on city initiatives. And it involves ditching your inbox to improve transparency.

Interesting: both panels have raised the idea of abandoning email as a mode of interacting with local gov #ccRAL

Government isn’t the only place where email has become a burden. And some people have already considered (or attempted) giving up their email. How are they able to do that? By taking advantage of different social platforms and tools to communicate with the people they need to reach. By choosing the right tool for the right job , and making sure everyone you want to know can still find you, communication is not interrupted–the theory is that it is made more efficient.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to lead a group of citizens reviewing the draft of Raleigh’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan. (This is a planning document that outlines the growth areas and objectives for the city over the next 20 years.) For this review, the planning department choose to use on online portal called Limehouse to collect comments and feedback.

While it’s not open source, it was better than the alternative—emailing city staff. Email is not transparent. Sure, we can request all the comments collected be posted on a website somewhere, but that’s not direct communication, nor is it timely. Someone has to compile and copy all that data. So we liked the direction taken with the use of the portal.

Limehouse was a central place where you could comment on individual paragraphs of the plan. Not only could you submit your comments, but you could see what others were saying. You could agree or disagree with those comments as well.

Using email to share feedback with local government only goes so far. It’s a great tool for communication, but not so much for collaboration, sharing, and transparency. Avoiding email for feedback might actually help city employees do their jobs. Instead of being stuck at their desk answering emails, they can use their skills more efficiently.

Create opportunities for citizens to collaborate with city staff

Another positive result was the engagement and collaboration between city staff and citizens. The dialog between city employees and citizens was happening before CityCamp, but on a much smaller scale–usually one-on-one and dependent on very specific issues. People usually wait until they have a problem to make contact (examples include technical support or surveys). The collaborative atmosphere at CityCamp Raleigh allowed the dialog to flourish between these stakeholders without the added burden of conflict, and without having to wait for an issue to occur.

In one session, the editor from a local online publication was explaining how they mapped out tornado damage from mid-April using city-provided data. What amazed me was that the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager from Raleigh, Colleen Sharpe, was sitting just a few seats down, and was able to provide immediate additional insight.

Colleen told us how the inspectors collected the data and how the GIS department was able to prepare the entire data set so it was usable and open. The GIS department made the disaster data available to the public very, very quickly–less than 48 hours after meeting the 72-hour Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deadlines for damage assessment. This quick turnaround is now a model for other municipalities who need to collect and publish data in this type of disaster scenario.

What’s next?

The future for CityCamp Raleigh looks bright. The planning committee is already exploring an approach that would lead to an event in 2012. In the meantime, there are a few things that are critical for continued success:

  1. Follow-up with the teams who presented ideas. See where they are, what they’re doing, and if their proposal is making any progress.
  2. Host monthly meet-ups with speakers and different topics. We want to keep the momentum going and meeting on a regular basis is one way to achieve that.
  3. Advocate for an open source directive—ours is currently before our local city council.

CityCamp Raleigh was a huge success. Not only was it a fulfilling experience for me personally, but a great team of people came together to get work done, and share a positive experience with government planning. We all had something in common—we want our city to be a better place to live. And we want other people to share that passion.

If you want to be a part of a movement that has tangible results over the course of a weekend, host a CityCamp. Your local government leaders will thank you for it—especially if you invite them along for the ride.

The other Vivek is wrong about open government

Whether it was written out of naivete or for the intent of sensationalism, the other Vivek, Vivek Wadhwa, misses the mark in his Washington Post piece The death of open government.

Wadhwa makes the general argument that, because U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra announced his resignation last week, open government will “suffer a slow, inevitable death.” While I agree the federal Open Government Initiative itself has lost momentum without set dates, timelines and leadership from the top, this by no means is an indicator of the overall health of open government.

Open government will never die and here’s just a few reasons why:

Spires says so

Homeland Security CIO and Vice Chair of the Federal CIO Council Richard Spires is emphatic that senior IT executives will carry on Kundra’s legacy. He writes this in a recent blog post:

During the past two years, I have worked closely with Vivek Kundra, the US CIO, in both my capacity as the DHS CIO and in various leadership roles on the Federal CIO Council. Vivek joined the Obama administration with a vision of IT being a catalyst for the Federal government to be much more open, participatory, and collaborative. Vivek has been a strong force for open government. He has changed the dialogue and viewpoint of agencies of the Federal government – and we will not go back. (emphasis mine)

A number of federal CIOs/CTOs I’ve talked with are passionate about leveraging technology to make government more open and efficient. These are bright, innovative public servants with vision. See Todd Park, Peter Levin, Roger Baker and countless others as prime examples.

Look local

Open government isn’t just a federal phenomenon. It’s happening in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and even in Wadhwa’s own backyard, San Francisco. Open data start-up Socrata has a growing customer list that includes states like Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma and Illinois.

Beyond data, groups like CityCamp and Code for America are creating an organic and sustainable movement that involves citizens and public servants.

It’s not just data

Wadhwa cites the lack of funding around initiatives like as a prime example of open government’s demise, but open government is more than just open data.

Open source projects and ideation experiments are flourishing at all levels of government. FCC most recently began the process of re-vamping and re-launching its entire Website after 10 years using the open source platform Drupal. Be on the look-out for other major agencies to announce the same. Open source service companies are playing a key role in fostering the open government community within the Beltway through events such as OpenGovDC and regular Drupal meet-ups at Stetson’s.

Innovation doesn’t need funding

Wadhwa writes of his call to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the half dozen replies to help fix federal government IT issues at a fraction of proposed costs. Unfortunately, he writes, “no one has taken these entrepreneurs up on their offer.”

Innovative entrepreneurs don’t wait for the phone to ring and neither should Wadhwa or his incubator-in-waiting. Follow in the footsteps of and Federal Register 2.0 and create the prototype. If it’s innovative enough and executable, someone in government will be the Gov 2.0 guinea pig.

Open advice to the other Vivek

Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Step away from the keyboard and engage in the grassroots open government movement, especially the one in your own backyard. Other tech leaders are doing more than just writing and theorizing on TechCrunch and The Washington Post (see Craig Newmark, Tim O’Reilly, Pierre Omidyar, Esther Dyson, Mitch Kapor to name just a few).

This isn’t a time for pontification. Government, especially open government, needs your help and leadership. It’s time to leverage your influence (and Klout score) and be the change. Inspire Silicon Valley to focus on civic technology instead of building another photo sharing app.

Open government won’t die a slow death because one of its biggest champions leaves public service.

Open government won’t die a slow death because it’s underfunded.

Open government will die a slow death if we, as citizens inside and outside government, don’t engage, collaborate, participate and do something about it.

Will Wadhwa create his own personal Open Government Initiative as many others across the world are doing? I hope so.

New mobile app Commons gets creative with 311

TechPresident’s Becky Kazansky has a great overview of Commons, a new 311 iPhone app that makes use of gaming and social features to better engage citizens. Here’s a short video interview featuring one of its founders, Suzanne Kirkpatrick.


“It’s exciting to be with other practitioners who are thinking about the idea of the relationship between technology and social change and civic empowerment, so we’re glad to be part of that conversation. “

Download Commons on iTunes here.

Closing out SFOpen 2011

SFOpen 2011 photo by Ryan Resella

Photo by Ryan Resella

SFOpen 2011 brought together 9 of the major San Francisco mayoral candidates last week to discuss technology and government, but it also put on display the reason I love the open government community so much.

Friends from all around the Bay Area (and even the East Coast) came together at Automattic to support and watch the first ever mayoral forum on open government, civic technology and public innovation and, despite the political nature of the event, there was much love in the room.

Most of our interaction with government tends to be negative. We get taxed or ticketed. We fight it and complain about how broken it is. We see it as a faceless bureaucracy without realizing good people inside and out are doing something to change this.

Many of those people were in that room last week and were excited to see that a simple civic agenda based on empowering citizens and addressing the basic tenets of open government (transparency, collaboration, participation) will trump politics every time.

SFOpen would’ve never happened without Brian Purchia,, GAFFTA, Automattic and Code for America, all of whom helped make its execution flawless.

I’d like to especially thank our moderator Mitch Kapor and the candidates themselves for sharing their ideas and showing a willingness to learn about an area that’s new to many:

  • Michela Alioto-Pier
  • John Avalos
  • David Chiu
  • Bevan Dufty
  • Tony Hall
  • Dennis Herrera
  • Joanna Rees
  • Phil Ting
  • Leland Yee

Thanks again to everyone who supported and was excited about SFOpen from the beginning. I’ve said this already, but I especially appreciate Brian Purchia‘s leadership and hope one day he himself runs for mayor.

I’m proud of San Francisco and its open government community, and I’m hopeful this may be the beginning of a new conversation in politics, not just here, but everywhere.


Gov 2.0 Radio

Post-SFOpen interview I did with Adriel Hampton and Allison Hornery:



Recorded livestream:


SF developers, public servants pitch their civic tents at CityCampSF

CityCampSF 2011 photo by Ryan Resella

Photo by Ryan Resella

If there’s one lesson that’s inherent to CityCampSF, it’s that crowdsourcing will save the world.

The second CityCamp San Francisco was hosted at the city’s Office of Technology, and featured projects that heavily favored using the community residents to make their block, neighborhood or city better. My takeaway? While the state of California may have proven that direct democracy doesn’t work, the city of San Francisco has shown that giving the power to the people may be the best way to save it.

Here are two examples:

SF Fire App

This is perhaps the best example of how people can help people. The app allows CPR-trained volunteers to get smartphone notifications of cardiac arrest patients who may be near them.

Developers used CityCampSF to work together and create another app to map Automated External Defibrillator (AED) locations. This technology is critical to help save lives, San Francisco City Attorney (and mayoral candidate) Dennis Herrera said, and that information was not readily known before.

Real World Sim City

One of the things I tweeted during the Real World Sim City presentation was “It’s amazing what can be crowdsourced — learning about billboards, gov’t apps, even a Robocop statue in Michigan!” For some reason a spam account picked up on that and commented, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” which unknowingly played right into the ethos of the project. One of the ideas Loveland Technologies Creative Director Jerry Paffendorf talked about was ‘Inchvesting,’ or paying a dollar per inch for vacant lots in downtown Detroit. Sure, you can’t do a lot with an inch, he said, but it gets people involved and invested in their neighborhoods, and good things come from that. You’ve probably heard of another venture Paffendorf had a hand in – the 10-foot bronze statue of Robocop enough people thought was a good idea that they donated $50,000 to make it happen on Kickstarter.

The whole experience was symbolic of the Internet, he said. “Take something that’s really serious, but put some kind of art experience on top. If you want to clean up the park, put a little Robocop on top of it.”

There were so many excellent panels and so little time. There were people coding in the atrium, talking in the hallways and exchanging ideas and business cards in every corner. SF Director of Public Works Ed Reiskin said he applauded events like this, calling them the “next step forward in civic engagement.”

“You ask, ‘how can we empower people,’ how do we take the information the government has and make it work better, make it more useful, more accessible, in ways that we in government didn’t imagine,” Reiskin said. “When you work in an organization you don’t question some of the basic assumptions of why you do what you do. Coming in from the outside, having tech savviness, but also just being citizens, you make sure the government works for you, and that’s tremendously powerful and helpful.”

To learn more about check out #citycampsf on Twitter and the CityCampSF Flickr group.


CityCampSF founder, NationBuilder Chief Organizer and Gov 2.0 Host Adriel Hampton on CityCampSF:

CityCamp founder Kevin Curry on how CityCamp San Francisco fits in and stands out:

SF Director of Innovation Jay Nath on the value of a city innovation officer:

Tropo’s Mark Headd discusses the impact of hackathons on the open government movement and how developers can get involved:

SF City Attorney and 2011 Mayoral Candidate Dennis Herrera on the role of meetups in civic engagement:

2011 SF Mayoral Candidate Joanna Rees on the role of meetups in civic engagement: